Are all bilinguals automatically interpreters?

 | Interpretation best practices, Interpreter insights

It is a common misconception that it is sufficient to be bilingual to be an interpreter. However, the reality is that bilingualism is neither a prerequisite nor sufficient in itself for a career as a conference interpreter. What is crucial, on the other hand, even for bilinguals, is rigorous interpreting training.

Man listening to conference interpreter

You would think that being bilingual would be sufficient in itself for a career as an interpreter. Surely someone who has a perfect knowledge of two languages will automatically make an accomplished interpreter. However, while being bilingual can be a helpful attribute for a would-be interpreter, it is not essential and certainly not enough on its own. Far more important is interpreting training and, above all, hours of practice.

When we use the word “bilingual” we are usually describing someone who has either learnt two languages from birth (a simultaneous bilingual) or learnt a second language perfectly later in life, often in an immersive environment (a successive bilingual). The age at which a second language is acquired is significant, as is the fact that bilinguals are often not equally proficient in their two languages.

To understand why bilinguals are not automatically interpreters it is illuminating to consider that bilinguals’ brains are different from interpreters’ brains [1]. In bilinguals both languages are lateralized in the brain’s left hemisphere. The earlier the second language is acquired, and the greater the proficiency in the second language, the more significant the neural overlap between the two languages will be. In interpreters’ brains on the other hand, languages do not seem to be lateralized mainly in the left hemisphere, but rather symmetrically in both hemispheres. It is believed that the brain structure is changed by both an intense study of the languages and by practising simultaneous interpreting.

So what is an interpreter doing that a bilingual is not? There are several steps in the process of simultaneous interpreting. First the interpreter must listen to the original language, understand it and analyse it (work out the speaker’s major and minor points and quickly assign the information conveyed to different categories). Next comes the language transfer process, when the interpreter reformulates the speaker’s message in the target language. Finally, the interpreter must express that information in the target language using appropriate register and intonation. Students of interpreting practise these component skills in isolation, and gradually combine them, so that they are ultimately able to do all of them at the same time.

As with learning a musical instrument, practice makes perfect. The number of hours spent simultaneously interpreting forms and strengthens neural pathways between the two languages, so that interpreters often have automatic solutions to frequently recurring phrases.

Clearly it is crucial for interpreters to have an excellent knowledge of their working languages, but being bilingual from an early age is certainly not a prerequisite for entering the profession. Indeed some simultaneous bilinguals, who have just one cognitive system for two languages, find interpreting training more challenging because of the additional processing effort involved in inhibiting lexical items in two languages in order to activate one lexical item in the desired language. A larger number of interpreters may be successive bilinguals, having immersed themselves in the acquired language at a later stage, but it is their interpreting training that is crucial, not their bilingualism.

So now you know: a bilingual may understand and speak two languages perfectly, but interpreting between those two languages, or from additional acquired languages into one of those languages, requires brain training and practice.

Calliope-Interpreters only recruits professional interpreters who have undergone rigorous interpreting training and who continue to invest in their Continuing Professional Development. All our interpreters are members of AIIC, and known to us personally in our local markets. If you need conference interpreters contact Calliope-Interpreters, your local global network.


[1] Alessandra Vita, In the head of bilinguals and interpreters: neurolinguistic aspects, 19 May 2014, available at, accessed 2 March 2018.

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